Gunmen blockade Cameroon bridge ahead of election

AP News
Posted: Sep 29, 2011 1:03 PM
Gunmen blockade Cameroon bridge ahead of election

Gunmen wearing military uniforms and carrying signs opposing Cameroon's longtime ruler blockaded a major bridge early Thursday, shooting at police for several hours in an attack less than two weeks before the presidential election.

Relative calm has returned to Douala after deployed troops arrested at least nine of the gunmen who were calling for President Paul Biya to quit, a military official said on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to speak to the press. Biya, who has been in power since 1982, faces 22 challengers in the Oct. 9 poll.

Eyewitness Itah Robert said Thursday's early morning gunfight took place on the mile-long Wouri Bridge, which is used by some 35,000 vehicles a day. One of the gunmen dived into the river below after being shot.

"A fierce exchange of gunfire ensued and one of the gunmen plunged into the River Wouri," he said. "It is not clear if he drowned."

One witness told The Associated Press that the gunmen had placards that read: "Paul Biya Must Go At All Costs" and "Paul Biya Dictator."

Local governor Francis Fai Yengo confirmed that 11 gunmen dressed in military uniforms were involved.

Biya, who is considered one of Africa's remaining strongmen, is widely expected to win another seven-year term next month. In 2008, he removed term limits from the constitution, provoking nationwide unrest that left 40 dead according to government statistics.

The International Crisis Group expressed concern that public frustration with the government could spark election-related violence in Cameroon.

Also Thursday, election officials said that two grenades were removed from a branch office for the election management body in Limbe in southwest Cameroon. There were no immediate claims of responsibility for the undetonated bombs found early in the morning.

Earlier this year, the government ordered cell phone companies to suspend mobile services for Twitter after people used the social networking site to report the mass deployment of troops to prevent a "Drive Out Biya" march.

Many poor Cameroonians blame Biya for the the prevalent poverty gripping this nation of more than 20 million people, citing political stagnation and resource-plundering by his colleagues.

Biya was bequeathed power in 1982 by what was then Cameroon's sole political party. Since then, he has introduced modest democratic reforms, allowing multiple political blocs and some increased personal freedoms.

In 1992, he won Cameroon's first-ever multiparty presidential elections, but the ballot was internationally denounced as fraudulent. The opposition accuses his party of rigging elections to ensure his victory.